Meet the Man Behind Hugh Jackman's Moves in "The Greatest Showman"
A schoolgirl's ballet recital, prancing circus horses, a Fred-and-Ginger ballroom homage, an aerial duet, even sheets flapping on laundry lines—in the new movie musical The Greatest Showman, Ashley Wallen choreographs them all, in service to a big, fanciful story based on the ups and downs of legendary 19th-century impresario P.T. Barnum. With Hugh Jackman, Michelle Williams, Zac Efron and Zendaya starring and dancing, songs by the Oscar- and Tony-winning composers Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, and a huge ensemble that includes "18 amazing dancers," conjoined twins, a man with three legs, and Barnum's other assorted sideshow attractions, Wallen calls it "a dream come true."
Choreographer Ashley Wallen on set. Courtesy 20th Century Fox.
It took nearly eight years, beginning long before La La Land showed Hollywood that there was once again an audience for original film musicals, and well before anyone had heard of Pasek and Paul. Director Michael Gracey had never made a feature film, though he was well-known in commercial circles. Wallen had been a dancer in Moulin Rouge, but his stock in trade was also commercials, along with music videos and pop-star tours. It was in 2009 that Wallen, Gracey and Jackman first worked together, on a soft-drink commercial set in a Tokyo hotel. Jackman, dancing all the way, moves through the lobby, the kitchen, a shallow rooftop pool and then back to the lobby via an obstacle course of flapping sheets wielded by maids.
Elements of that tone, camerawork and choreography have echoes in The Greatest Showman, and Wallen, who's called Ash, acknowledges it. "The way we shoot those dance numbers is very much the same as what we do in commercials," he says. But he emphasizes the differences: "We've got a lot more story to tell in the film, and we've got longer to develop the characters and their journey with the dancers."
Barnum's journey, which took him from a hardscrabble Connecticut boyhood to great wealth and international fame, has inspired other films, as well as the 1980 Broadway musical Barnum. But Greatest Showman is less about the details of the promoter's biography—he died in 1891, at 80—than it is a celebration of his pluck and his hoopla-happy sensibility. Imbued with Jackman's innate charm, Barnum is a dreamer and a born entertainer, with an all-embracing view of humanity and a distinct flair for the eye-popping production number.
Despite the 19th-century trappings, the movie's songs and dances are unapologetically modern—"contemporary with a classic vibe to it," Wallen says. Most classic are its two lyrical duets, one on a New York tenement rooftop and the other airborne above an empty circus arena. In the first, Barnum and his wife, played by Michelle Williams, send the children off to bed and share a tender, soaring dance amid the clotheslines. In the second, Barnum's circus partner, Zac Efron, is entranced by one of the performers, a beautiful trapeze artist portrayed by Zendaya, and they end up in a dizzying aerial embrace. Throughout the movie, the camera flies and dances too, spiraling among the circus acts and the audience, hovering over the big ensembles and the intimate couples alike.
The overhead shot in the three-ring extravaganza that closes the movie, Wallen says, was "a nightmare" to shoot, "because everyone has to be so perfect, and in a perfect place. Perfect!" With floor measurements determining everyone's precise spot, as well as special accommodations for a Bearded Lady and her "massive, big dress," a Three-Legged Man lugging his extra equipment, and the Siamese Twins, two actors co-habiting a single costume, the retakes mounted up—"You see one person out, and your eye goes straight towards them," Wallen notes. "And we had confetti falling at the same time. We had so many elements to push through to get it right."
The Australian-born choreographer was awed by the work the film's stars put into getting their elements right. He says the grueling rehearsals with Williams left her sore, while Jackman's insistence on "going over and over and over" things left Wallen tired. Their duet on the roof, even after a luxurious eight weeks of rehearsal, was a difficult shoot, too. "There are big lifts, and Michelle's tall. It's beautiful, but it's actually quite athletic as well...and then we had to do the timing with the sheets," he says. The dancing sheets are among the film's many digitized effects—no animals were harmed, or even used, to film the CGI tigers and elephants. Wallen did help with the horses in the circus parade, though, and he laughs when he realizes, "I should add them to my resumé."
The cast and crew review footage with Wallen (center, in white). Courtesy 20th Century Fox.
His resumé is something of a three-ring circus already, featuring pop stars like Kylie Minogue and Mariah Carey, a 25,000-strong flash mob for Oprah, the West End and Broadway productions of Ghost the Musical, and dance-competition TV shows overseas. Now, with The Greatest Showman in theaters December 20, he's off to shoot some more music videos, and probably a lot more he doesn't know about yet. Barnum started out hyping a small person he named Tom Thumb and ended up marketing the concert singer Jenny Lind, "the Swedish Nightingale." So there's no predicting where Wallen's peripatetic talents will take him next—or if linens will be involved.
It is a great tragedy for dance history that iconic ballet partnerships like Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev or Natalia Makarova and Mikhail Baryshnikov weren't able to document their backstage shenanigans on social media. (Okay, maybe not a great tragedy, but you have to admit that you're curious.)
Lucky for us, that isn't the case with today's star dancers—like American Ballet Theatre principal dancers Isabella Boylston and James Whiteside, aka The Cindies. These two aren't just onstage partners. They're serious #BestieGoals. Our evidence, as documented on Instagram, is as follows:
-Hey. U up?
-Ya. I'm at the ballet.
-Oh ok. Talk later.
-Nah, it's cool, it's a slow part right now.
Nope, it's not cool. Put your phone away. In the hushed darkness of an auditorium, light explodes from that screen like shrapnel, blasting those around you out of their viewing experience.
2017 felt like we were living the Upside Down of the popular Netflix series "Stranger Things." From Donald Trump becoming president, to the sexual harassment scandals that ricocheted into the ballet world, everything we thought we knew was turned on its head.
Yet while the deconstruction of institutional paradigms is frightening, it also presents an unprecedented opportunity for redesign.
Ballet, much like our political parties, seems to be stuck in an antiquated format that's long overdue for a makeover. With the world changing at lightning speed, if ballet wants to survive it will have to undergo a radical reimagining. But what would that look like?
Dear dancers of the New York City Ballet,
I realize that you are scared because the future of the New York City Ballet is uncertain; you don't know who will man the ship, and your career that you've worked your entire life for feels under attack.
On social media some of you alluded to the idea that Peter Martins' downfall is a result of the times; a maelstrom of allegations sweeping the country, bringing down powerful men, for misdeeds proven and unproven. I understand that for many of you this feels unfair: Peter has helped you personally ascend the ranks of the company by believing in you, and mentoring you. For others the described behavior may feel abstract; it isn't something you've witnessed, and many of the accusations occurred long before your time, maybe even before you were born. And above all, how could you possibly betray the man who plucked you from the school and gave you the chance of a lifetime: to dance with one of the most prestigious ballet companies in the world? How could you see this person, who gave you this chance, this gift, as the monster he's being painted as?
Throughout his remarkable career, the fiercely determined, intelligent and energetic Arthur Mitchell has become accustomed to being called a trailblazer. "Being a typical Aries, I like being the first," he says, laughing. "That's what I've been doing all my life."
This is true, especially when it comes to the discussion at the forefront of today's national dialogue about dance: diversity in ballet.
In the dance world, Mandy Moore has long been a go-to name, but in 2017, the success of her choreography for La La Land made the rest of the world stop and take notice. After whirlwind seasons as choreographer and producer on both "Dancing with the Stars" and "So You Think You Can Dance," she capped off the year with two Emmy Award nominations—and her first win.
You've come a long way on "So You Think You Can Dance"—from assistant to the choreographer (Season 1) to creative producer (Season 14). What keeps you returning to the show?
"So You Think You Can Dance" was one of my first jobs, so it feels like home. I love the chaos of live television; as soon as one show is over you're on to the next.
Last Saturday night, Dance/NYC, Gibney Dance and the Actors Fund hosted a conversation on sexual harassment in the dance world. The floor was open for anyone in attendance to share whatever they wanted: personal stories, resources, suggestions.
The event brought to light some of the questions the dance world is facing, and though we don't yet have all the answers, it helped lay out the areas we need to address:
What would dance-specific sexual harassment training and policies look like?
Corporate harassment trainings tend to tell employees to avoid touching coworkers and to not wear revealing clothing in the workplace. Obviously, these rules aren't applicable to the dance world. Many in attendance agreed that everyone in the dance world should undergo training, so what should it include?
The ballet world can't get enough of Arthur Pita. With his maverick, surreal imagination, the self-styled "David Lynch of dance" brings a welcome theatricality to everything he touches, from his version of Kafka's The Metamorphosis to 2017's Salome for San Francisco Ballet.
The South African–born Pita competed in disco dancing and later performed with Matthew Bourne's New Adventures. Today, he is Bourne's offstage partner, and the pair live together in London. His latest work, which premiered in November, is a one-act adaptation of Dorothy Scarborough's 1925 Texan novel, The Wind, for The Royal Ballet.
We've been a fan of the space bun look since our Spice Girls days, which is exactly why we were so excited when hair and makeup artist Angela Huff brought the double-bun style back for our January cover shoot with American Ballet Theatre's Erica Lall. To give the '90s style a modern twist, Huff added a few braided details. Here's how to copy the look for your next class:
Photo by Nathan Sayers
At age 24, dancer and choreographer Caleb Teicher already has accolades beyond his years. But this week, the Bessie Award–winning performer adds another impressive feat to his resumé: His company's Joyce Theater debut. Though tap is Teicher's focus, he masterfully combines everything from jazz to Lindy Hop to hip hop in his fresh, clever choreography.
We caught up with him for our "Spotlight" series: